Our View: Was $7.4 billion from Prop. 63 spent wisely?

August 19, 2013 

Mental Health Spending

In this July 2012 photo, Lynn Kuene, director of the La Familia Counseling Center, talks with a young client during a visit to the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento. Voters approved Proposition 63 in 2004 to provide funding for mental health services, but is the money being well spent?

RICH PEDRONCELLI — AP

— This is known: California spent $7.4 billion between 2006 and 2012 from an income tax on millionaires approved by voters who hoped to improve care for people who suffer from severe mental illness.

This is not known: Was the money generated as a result of Proposition 63 spent wisely? Did the money do as much good as it should have done? Was it shoved down a rat hole, never to be seen again?

Alas, an audit by the Bureau of State Audits could not answer how the money was spent. To the contrary, the audit detailed how a succession of departments and officials failed to obtain the most basic information from counties that spend most of the money.

"Lacking meaningful and complete data, the state is hindered in its ability to report on the success of (Mental Health Services Act) programs and to assure taxpayers that their funds are not being wasted," says the audit, which focused on Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Santa Clara and Sacramento counties.

Voters should find the report to be fundamentally frustrating. Legislators should not be surprised if the audit further fuels public skepticism about government's ability to use the people's money for the greatest good.

Clearly distressed about homeless mentally ill people and the tens of thousands of mentally ill people filling prisons and jails, voters in 2004 approved Proposition 63, which imposes an extra 1 percent income tax on people who earn $1 million or more annually.

The tax generates $1 billion a year for what was the chronically underfunded system of care for severely mentally ill people. The extra $1 billion may or may not be enough. There is no way to know whether programs funded by the Mental Health Services Act are working.

Do individuals who receive help because of Proposition 63 spend fewer days in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards than before they received the service? Are they jailed fewer days and do they spend less time homeless? Do programs that are designed to prevent illness among young people actually work? Those questions and many others remain unanswered, nine years after voters approved Proposition 63.

One of the most urgent questions is whether the funding goes where it's most needed — to the severely mentally ill.

Critics of Proposition 63 spending priorities can point to questionable uses of the money, such as yoga, horseback riding, gardening, the purchase of iPads, and a slick public relations video that is being passed off as a serious documentary about stigma.

A community garden might be a perfectly fine use of Proposition 63 money, if the garden is used to lure people into getting care who otherwise would not seek help. But there needs to be some proof of its efficacy.

Assemblyman Dan Logue, a Butte County Republican, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who requested the audit, say they intend to press for better reporting, as well they should.

Anyone who walks through any city in California, or hikes along any river, knows that many people with severe mental illness remain homeless. Jails and prisons are filled with mentally ill inmates.

The question remains: Is there a need for more money, or should the available money be used more wisely? Before lawmakers spend any more money, voters deserve to know the answer.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service